Saturday, 4 August 2018

A hidden gem in the Usk Valley

I have lived in Wales for more than twenty years now and, although I am still stumbling upon new treasures, there are some places that I find myself returning to time and time again. One of my favourites is Tretower Court.  It sits in the green Usk Valley between Abergavenny and Brecon, seemingly untouched, timeless.

When compared with the tourist hot spots like Pembroke and Conwy castles the site is small but this simply adds to the atmosphere. The noise of the traffic dwindles and all you can hear is birdsong and the sporadic bleating of sheep. A few years ago Tretower was little known and I’d find myself the only person there, with the ghosts of the past whispering in my ear.

Tretower marks the period when castles were abandoned in favour of more comfortable, less fortified homes. There are two distinct sites at Tretower, each as valuable in their own way as the other: the later medieval house and, two hundred yards to the north-west, the remains of the 12th century castle stronghold, the round tower being added later in the period.

Although the more domestic Court building was erected early in the fourteenth century, later additions to the Tower suggest that the stronghold was not entirely abandoned at this time. Should the house have come under attack the inhabitants would simply gather up their possessions, round up the livestock, and take cover behind the impregnable walls of the tower.

The earliest part of medieval house is the north range, which dates from the early fourteenth century. The masonry and latrine turret on the west end may even have been built as early as 1300. The four major phases of building can clearly be seen from the central courtyard as can the later modifications added as late as the seventeenth century. As you move from room to room, duck through low doorways, climb twisting stairways and creep into the dark recesses of the latrine turrets you are not alone. So much has happened here, so many people have passed through, so much laughter has rung out and so many tears have fallen. It is a jewel for any writer, I can smell the stories still waiting to be told.

A motte and bailey was raised by a Norman follower by the name of Picard. The property passed through the family’s male line until the fourteenth century when it moved, via the female line, to Ralph Bluet and then, again through the marriage of another daughter, to James de Berkeley.
His son, also James, became Lord Berkeley on the death of his uncle. Tretower was later purchased from James by his mother’s husband, Sir William ap Thomas. Sir William’s second wife, Gwladys, gave him a son, William Herbert, later the earl of Pembroke, who inherited both Tretower and Raglan Castle on his father’s death. Tretower was later gifted to William’s half-brother, Roger Vaughan the younger, around 1450.

Herbert and Vaughan both played important roles during the Wars of the Roses. William Herbert was both friend and advisor to Edward IV and his career prospered until 1469 when he was executed following the Yorkist defeat at Edgecote.

Roger Vaughan, who was responsible for most of the major reconstruction of Tretower Court, was knighted in 1464, and present as a veteran at Tewkesbury and finally captured at Chepstow. There, he was executed by Jasper Tudor in an act of vengeance for beheading his father, Owen Tudor, ten years previously. Tretower remained in the possession of the Vaughans until the eighteenth century when it was sold and became a farm.

Years of neglect and disrepair followed and it was not until the twentieth century that preservation and repair work began. The reconstructions at Tretower are beautifully done, the living history displays that take place there providing deeper knowledge of how the dwelling was utilised.

The garden with its relaxed medieval planting is as beautiful as any I have seen is this country. Laid out and designed by Francesca Kay, it has a covered walk way, tumbling with red and white roses, fragrant lavender, aquilega, foxgloves and marigold sprawl beside a bubbling fountain in the midst of a chequered lawn. 

I spent a long time here on a warm Sunday morning in July, wandering through the rose arbour, lingering in the orchard before returning to the house. As I progressed along the dim corridors I could almost hear the skirts of my gown trailing after me on the stone floors. I paused, and time was suspended as I looked through thick, green glass to the courtyard and garden below.

If you ever have the good fortune to visit Wales, make the time to call in at Tretower and don't forget to bring a picnic and a blanket for I guarantee you will want to linger.

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Thursday, 2 August 2018

A Queen in Shadow - a look back through time to Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth

The Hever Portrait

The subject to Anne Boleyn’s true physical appearance has been discussed time and time again in books, blogs and journals, yet it is a subject that remains endlessly fascinating, the varied opinions and theories almost as intriguing as the woman herself.

Almost instantly recognisable, Anne Boleyn’s portrait graces thousands of book covers, mugs, tea towels, key rings…her face is everywhere. But is it really her face that we are seeing? Do the portraits show us what was Anne really like?

I don’t intend to hold a full debate on the portraits here but none we have are contemporary and the closest  are copies made of likenesses painted in her life time.

National Portrait Gallery

After her execution it wasn’t wise to have representations of a fallen queen gracing one’s walls so during the remainder of Henry’s reign and the years of Edward and Mary’s rule, her face and many artefacts belonging to her, slipped away. It wasn’t until her daughter, Elizabeth, ascended the throne that Anne became acceptable again and the demand for her image increased. As a consequence most extant images were worked long after her death – some as late as the 17th century.

The likenesses attributed to be her range from softly pretty to plum ugly as do the textual descriptions. Opinions of Anne Boleyn depended enormously upon the political stance and agenda of the author and as a consequence the documentary evidence is as varied and unreliable as the pictorial.

Due to her efforts for religious reform and the displacement of Catherine of Aragon, Anne was never a favourite of Spain or the Catholic faction and this is clear from some of the descriptions of her. Roman Catholic Nicholas Sander saw her as: ‘…rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth.’

Very nice of him to go to the trouble of saying so. And the Venetian ambassador was scarcely more flattering in his account.

‘Madame Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful - and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne. She lives like a queen, and the King accompanies her to Mass - and everywhere.’

The Nidd Hall Portrait
It is quite clear that she was not a ravishing beauty although of course, what is considered beautiful today is vastly different to that favoured in the 16th century. If you look at the line-up of Henry’s wives, the ‘Flanders Mare’ of Henry’s stable, Anne of Cleves, was by today’s standards, rather pretty.  

In a society that favoured delicately complexioned blondes, Anne’s dark hair and olive skin were far from fashionable and neither did her slim, small breasted (‘not much raised’) figure fit the current vogue for voluptuous women.

But most descriptions, even the most unfavourable, agree that Anne possessed expressive eyes and a vivacious wit and it must have been those attributes that captivated the king. Which, for once I think, speaks  rather well of Henry in that he was able to see past contemporary ideals to what lay beneath. Shame it didn’t last.

The only truly contemporary image we have of Anne is a badly damaged portrait medal that nevertheless bears some resemblance to the Anne we see depicted in later portraits.  From this we can deduce that we can come quite close to discovering a likeness to the real woman.
Princess Elizabeth (later Queen)
The medal was struck in 1534 with Anne’s motto, ‘The Most Happi’ and the initials ‘A.R’ – Anna Regina, so we can be quite sure that it is her. These medals were usually struck to commemorate a great event, often a coronation but since the date does not tie in with this, Eric Ives believes that it was more likely to have been intended to mark birth of Anne’s second child in the autumn of 1534 that she miscarried. This theory also explains why few copies survive.
The Anne Boleyn Medal
Other portraits include the familiar Hever portrait and the one at the National Portrait Gallery as well as some sketches by Holbein which receive varying degrees of certainty from the experts. The Nidd Hall portrait shows an aging Anne which is closer to some of the less favourable documented descriptions discussed previously. Another rather touching artefact is the Chequers Ring, a jewel removed from the finger of Elizabeth I on her death bed and found to contain the image of herself and her mother, Anne.
The Drew Portrait of Elizabeth I

Of course, we can never know the extent of Elizabeth’s attachment to her mother but some documented incidents point to a curiosity about her. Although Elizabeth was just two years old when Anne was executed and is not likely to have had strong memories of her, there were those around her who had known Anne and would have been able to keep her memory alive. If Elizabeth was satisfied that the image bore a likeness to her mother then I think we can be fairly confident too.

The recent (and not so recent) discussions of Anne’s appearance have led to the assumption that she and her daughter bore a close resemblance. Apart from Elizabeth’s colouring which was auburn and Tudor in origin, there are likenesses to Anne, especially in the earlier portraits before Royal iconography began to overshadow Elizabeth’s personality. The dark eyes are particularly similar.
NPG Margaret Beaufort - Grandmother to Elizabeth I

I spend a lot of time looking at paintings of historical figures and it has always struck me that in later life Elizabeth closely resembled her great grandmother. I suppose it should come as no surprise that there is also a look of Henry VII, Elizabeth’s grandfather.  Perhaps there is more Tudor in Elizabeth than we thought.

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn is now available in paperback, kindle and also as an audiobook. To celebrate the new audio format I have a few FREE codes for audible members. You can also use it to make your first purchase when you take out a FREE three month trial of audible.

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